Gothic play takes to the Toronto stage
Have you ever been to the Red Sandcastle Theatre? It used to be a store and it’s quite long and narrow. It’s a small space that seats about 50 people in three rows along the long wall. The stage isn’t raised at all–it’s what’s left over after the seating. It makes for very intimate theatre, and was perfect for this gothic piece set in the middle of nowhere.
Elaine (Margaret Lamarre) lives with her second husband in the house she and her first husband built early in their marriage. Her adult children, Ben (David Huband) and April (Amber Mackereth) live in the city, and are visiting to mark the anniversary of their father’s death.
I really enjoyed the way that the characters developed through the play. They were all quite different at the end from the way they were in the beginning, and all three actors are wonderful at creating and sustaining tension between them. At first it seemed as if it was David and Amber against Elaine, then Amber and David against each other, then Elaine against Amber. It kept shifting and intensifying. I could feel the suspense starting to build; something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what.
It was a welcome relief when the three of them sat down to drink sherry and toast their late father/husband. Elaine told a story about going to Italy with him when they hadn’t been married for very long. Every day they would drink sherry and eat olives. Her description of eating an olive is beautiful.
It was fascinating watching Lamarre as Elaine. She has an ability to turn on a dime. One minute she’s a harsh mother criticizing her daughter, the next she’s vague and confused and can’t answer Ben’s questions. I kept trying to figure out if she had dementia or if she was having a breakdown.
Huband’s Ben was the voice of reason, trying to keep the peace between his mother and April. His body language was relaxed, and he was ‘pleasant’ personified. Despite this, there were a couple of moments when Elaine and April were being particularly cruel to each other he would smile a little, creating an intriguing character.
Mackereth’s April was my least favourite character, although her performance was terrific. The character was big, in a good way. Early in the play she seemed nasty and angry, but as time went on, Mackereth allowed us to see could see that she was hurt and afraid, determined to get answers from her mother and break free from the secrets that had controlled them all.
Frankel wore a lot of hats for this production. She wrote the play; produced it; directed it; did the set, costume, lighting, and sound design; was the stage manager and the tech operator and probably other things I’ve forgotten to list. A force to be reckoned with.
Her set is a kitchen with a wood stove (an electric fire), with a chair next to it, a table with three chairs, and a big window (a screen with the image of a rainstorm projected on it).
I liked the way she had the characters use the space. There weren’t many moments where all three characters were sitting at the table together. Usually, at least one of them was standing or pacing or sitting in the chair next to the wood stove, creating a range of motion.
I also liked the way that one one character would be talking and anther would be doing something — maybe filling a vase with water. It made it feel like a real family visit, depending, of course, on how dysfunctional your family is.
Whenever a play is suspenseful I try and figure out what’s happening, or what’s going to happen. There was something I didn’t expect about two thirds of the way through but after that I knew what the ending was going to be. So I sat there smugly waiting for it.
And wow, was I wrong! I didn’t see that ending coming at all.
Overall, I enjoyed Gripless. It’s a tension filled, suspenseful, family drama, well written, well acted, well directed. Definitely worth seeing.
- Gripless is playing until July 23 at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. E)
- Performances are at 8:00 pm Thursday and Saturday through Monday with a matinee at 2:00 pm on Saturday
- Tickets are $20.00 at the door
Photo of David Huband, Margaret Lamarre (seated) and Amber Mackereth by Deborah Ann Frankel